"Ask Gib": What's your favorite interview question?
Answer: "Give me an example of how you combined Strategy, an Idea, and Leadership to deliver a significant Result." (I call this the Results = Strategy + Idea + Leadership model.)
Each month, I answer a few questions, drawing from my experience as VP of Product at Netflix and Chegg (the textbook rental and homework help company that went public in 2013). Today’s answer is essay #58.
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Here’s my favorite interview question:
Can you give me an example of a result you delivered and how you combined strategic thinking, an idea, and leadership to deliver the project?
I like this question because it delivers insight during an interview but is also a highly effective on-the-job diagnostic tool.
Here’s the model:
Results = Strategic thinking + Idea + Leadership
Below, I dive into how I used the model as a diagnosis tool — when product leaders get stuck —and then show how I apply it to interviews.
Using the “Results = S + I + L” Model for Diagnosis
I first experimented with this model when I was SVP Product at an educational software company, The Learning Company, in 1998. A VP of Product, Greg Long, struggled to move a new idea forward. He wanted to sign an exclusive deal to build children's software with Pokemon, but The Learning Company (TLC) thought it was off strategy. The challenge was that TLC believed in fairly heavy-hitting learning value, and Pokemon was perceived as bad for kids from a learning point of view.
We examined the “Results = Strategy + Initiative (idea) + Leadership” model. There were no results -- Greg was stuck. And his idea was off strategy for TLC. Plus, there wasn't a novel idea. In a series of discussions, we played with the model:
What is your strategy with Pokemon? How might it fit with TLC’s strategy and brand?
Beyond applying the Pokemon brand to children’s software, what is the idea? Is it novel in any way?
How will you effectively communicate these ideas to inspire teams to invest in the project?
Over time, Greg advocated a new strategy, "Learning Games." His argument: all TLC games didn't need heavy-hitting pedagogy. In this case, we would take the stuff kids love— Pokemon characters and trading cards— and bring small elements of "good for you" learning into the experience. This strategy was palatable to TLC.
And the initiative/idea got better. Capitalizing on the success of Pokemon trading cards and knowing that CD-ROMs did not need to be round, the team pioneered a set of “PokeRoms” -- card-shaped disks that worked just like CD-ROMs. And, of course, kids could “collect them all,” effectively extending the franchise.
By then, the leadership was simple. Greg successfully advocated for a long-term deal to sign Pokemon for a line of “PokeRoms,” all focused on different learning games that fit within TLCs learning objectives and the Pokemon brand.
The result was that year's top-selling kids software. The “Results = Strategy + Initiative + Leadership” model was a helpful tool to diagnose Greg's lack of progress and help him get unstuck.
Using the “S + I + L = Results” Model for Interviews
As I interview candidates, I explain the model then ask for an example where a product leader has combined strategic thinking, an idea, and leadership to deliver results.
The conversation starts messily. Most candidates list results but fail to apply the model. So I’ll nudge them along. For instance:
If they tell me they improved personalization for their website, I’ll ask what metrics they used to describe their success and explore how this metric “ladders up” to high-level company objectives.
I’ll ask what their overall strategy for improving personalization was? How did they decide which projects to execute?
What were some of the novel ideas they pursued to create a more personalized experience? Are the ideas interesting? Impactful? Do these ideas fit the overall strategy they described? Can the candidate differentiate between strategy and tactics (the projects or ideas)?
How did they provide inspired leadership to get everyone moving in the same direction across their organization or team? Do they have the communication skills required to motivate teams?
This is not a “gotcha” question; the purpose is to initiate a conversation. I learn a lot about a candidate’s approach to building products, and I can help the candidate discipline their thinking. My unhidden agenda: to demonstrate that I might be a highly effective coach/manager if we decide that the role is a good fit.
Conclusions: Strategy + Idea + Leadership = Results
I like the model because it’s both an effective diagnostic tool for projects as well as a highly effective conversation starter for interviews:
Diagnosis: Do you have any stuck projects? Which element of the model is missing or needs work? The strategy? The idea? Clearer, more aggressive leadership to get folks moving in the same direction?
Interviews: In your next interview, ask the candidate to describe a result, along with the strategy, idea, and leadership they provided. The question will provoke a rich conversation that will help you to decide if the candidate has the skills required to succeed and if you’ll enjoy working together.
Thanks for the question!
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P.S. Some helpful links:
What Your Next Head of Product Looks Like (A fuller cheatsheet for interviews).
Hacking Your Product Leader Career (Good preparation for being interviewed).